New Launch System to Rival Saturn V
NASA will build a rocket larger and more powerful than even the massive Saturn V moon rockets under a plan unveiled Sept. 14 to take astronauts farther into space than ever before.
The Space Launch System, or SLS, will take astronauts into deep space on missions to asteroids, the moon or Mars.
"We are dreaming big," NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said. "We're investing in technologies to live and work in space and it sets the stage for visiting asteroids and Mars."
Just like its Saturn V predecessor, the SLS heavy-lift rocket will launch from NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Kennedy's main work during the SLS development will center on designing ground support equipment for the test flights and then the operational missions.
The unique facilities at Kennedy are expected to be used for SLS, too. In addition to the landmark Vehicle Assembly Building, which stacked the Saturn V for launch, Kennedy has processing areas and clean rooms that can support spacecraft of all sorts. The crawler-transporters and the 355-foot-tall mobile launcher, or ML, also are available to support a rocket at the launch pad.
“Kennedy Space Center received exciting news, as NASA announced the design for the most powerful American rocket since the Saturn V took astronauts to the moon -- the Space Launch System,” said Bob Cabana, Kennedy Space Center director. “Kennedy’s role continues to be significant and central to shaping the next era of space exploration as we provide infrastructure, facilities capabilities, and skills that are essential to our nation’s success. Significant progress has already been made at Kennedy implementing upgrades to Launch Pad 39B that will ensure our readiness to support the SLS architecture. We will continue to modify other existing launch and processing facilities as we transform Kennedy to the multi-user launch complex of the future.”
The rocket will be built around a core stage the same diameter as a space shuttle external tank and powered by three space shuttle main engines, with later flights using five SSMEs. Five-segment solid rocket boosters will be mounted to the side of the tank for additional power, although liquid-fueled boosters could be incorporated on later flights after an industry competition.
"We can tell you we have the capability with this for some pretty exciting missions," said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations."I think it's fair to call this the most powerful rocket ever built.”
The upper stage will be powered by the J-2X engine and the astronauts will fly inside a large capsule spacecraft called the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). The J-2X engine and Orion have been in different stages of development while the SSMEs have been proven during 30 years of space shuttle missions.
"We have very little engine development to do," Gerstenmaier said.
Gerstenmaier said the new rocket's designers focused on using existing technology in the rocket in many areas so it can be built using modern, more efficient manufacturing techniques.
"This is being designed and built in a new, modern way," Gerstenmaier said. "We'll probably build the tank vertically instead of horizontally."
The design also is intended to be modular so it can be tailored to different mission needs without requiring one-of-a-kind, and more expensive, components. NASA envisions two basic sizes for the SLS. One would lift 70 metric tons into space, about three times more than a shuttle. A larger version, complete with a 10-meter payload fairing or nose cone, would lift 130 metric tons into space, a larger payload than any other rocket.
"We think this rocket, when we put it out there, will be very attractive to other users," Gerstenmaier said, noting the rocket could be used to launch huge satellites or other cargo without astronauts on board.
Compared to the Saturn V rocket that carried astronauts to the moon from 1968 – 1972, the SLS would produce 10 percent more thrust when configured to launch 70 metric tons into space. The larger version, will boast 20 percent more thrust than the Saturn.
The large version of the SLS also will be 40 feet taller than a Saturn V, coming in at about 400 feet.
The schedule calls for a test flight in 2017 with the upper stage of a Delta IV rocket, then a flight with astronauts on board in 2021 with the J-2X-powered upper stage. The rocket and spacecraft could conduct a mission to an asteroid taking place potentially in 2025.
Gerstenmaier said, "Yes, it takes a long time, but when we're finished we'll be capable of going to space like no other nation."
SLS Fun Facts (PDF)
Steven Siceloff, KSC